I wished for smart Yellowstone recommendations. It’s so huge and overwhelming, I was clutched by the agonizing pain of driving past something great to get to something else great. It’s a terrible feeling. Here’s the list I wish someone had made for me.
A few notes about seasons before we get started. The time of year really matters.
- Winter=October to May (That’s a lot of winter.)
- Early Spring=lots of water because of spring thaw
- Late Summer=thermal features are starting to dry up
Also regarding driving: Yellowstone’s roads form a giant figure-eight. They call it the “Grand Loop” (of course they do). Here’s how I would characterize each quadrant:
- Top west-hot springs
- Top east-gorgeous mountain and valley views
- Bottom west-more hot springs, Old Faithful
- Bottom east-gorgeous views and Yellowstone Lake
To oversimplify: west side is thermal features, and east side is gorgeous views.
- Upper and Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River; Artist’s Point
- Sylvan Pass (near East Entrance)
- Anywhere you can find the continental divide paired with a little pond full of lily pads (this happens more than you’d think)
If you’re pressed for time, maybe pass on:
- Artist Paint Pots-at least in late summer, it was a long hot walk for more glumpy, boiling mud. But this is a great place for off road peeing if you have little boys who have to go all the time.
- Grand Prismatic-the lines and parking lot here were always too long and full. Look at pictures online instead.
- Old Faithful-Oh, I don’t know. Go if you want. It is crowded, but it sits in a big open field with lots of other geysers intersected by generous walkways. It goes off every 80-120 minutes, and the rangers do the math for you, so the times are posted. It’s a big geyser. If I didn’t have children to keep off the fragile thermal crust of the earth everywhere I think Caleb and I would have just wandered through the nearby thermal fields and watched Old Faithful from a distance. But with kids, we lined up on the benches and watched from up close.
- Hayden Valley-Yellowstone has a minty green and dark yellow color because of all the sagebrush. In Hayden Valley it’s all laid out in a wide open plain along the Yellowstone River. People line up here with their big cameras, hoping to see wildlife. I doubt they are ever disappointed. We had already seen a single bison, snorting and stomping, but I wished upon a ranger badge for a whole herd. And in Hayden Valley, my wish was granted. Hundreds of grunting, rutting monsters. They ran across the road, they made photographer cry out in fear and alarm. It was a treat. Also, Leo calls them “biscey”, and that is very cute. The Lamar Valley is rumored to be the big show, but it’s a little out of the way, and I cannot overstate how huge the park is. Hayden Valley is on the grand loop, so we got to see it a few times. Convenience, man.
- Firehole River-The actual swimming spot for Firehole River is off this terrifying cliffside one-way road. At this altitude my body cannot handle thrills like that. But just south, or upriver, we stopped and swam in this warm, clear mountain stream. It was deep enough to actually swim, and clear enough to see your feet, and warm enough to not need hesitation to get in. We all loved it. Leo just kept waving his naked arms in the water and reciting his siblings names as he spotted them swimming. There’s a flat wide bank and you don’t have to feel like everyone is going to die.
- Swan Lake Meadow-Big views of seven snow capped mountains paired with an innocent pond. We got out in this giant meadow at swan lake to let the kids play. Again, no one is going to die here. No thermal features, no cliffs. We also a little bit littered egg shells. So if you see some there, we are so sorry. It was a low moment and we had to give something to the children to make them stop crying at us. We stayed way back and let the kids have their moment, and it went better for them and for us. It’s good to remember that they are not keeping a top ten list of Yellowstone’s Greatest Sights, but they just want to play without us breathing down their necks.
- Lower Geyser Basin-this was always less busy than Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful and you can see proper geysers, colorful prismatics, and hissing holes in the ground here too. If you want to skip Old Faithful, you can get a closer look at a smaller, similar geyser here. This is a great place to get the whole steamy, sensory, stinky experience.
- Yellowstone Lake-Unexpectedly I have found my favorite body of water in the whole world. Wind, waves, mountains, dreams coming true-all of this will happen here. I tried not to make promises to Yellowstone Lake that I couldn’t keep, but every time I saw her I wanted to fling open the car door and run straight into her magnificent arms. I would sell a hundred vials of baby tears for one more breath of the sweet air that blows over her sapphire waters.
- Fishing Bridge Ranger Station-this is my list and I loved this Ranger Station. (Frankly, any Ranger Station.) There are double doors in the back that open to Yellowstone Lake (see above, and also forever), so fresh winds blow right into the building while you explore museum quality exhibits of stuffed park animals. Of particular magnificence is the Trumpeter Swan. Especially if you are a fan of E.B. White. And you are.
- Mount Washburn Pass-Driving along on the east side, everything is fully glorious, but you cannot pull off the road every sixty seconds, or you will never make it to your cheese, cherries, and bed. But take another moment on this mountain with a view. There is a place to park, then just run down and up to a beautiful butte. There are times when you can’t help but run, even though your out of shape lungs can’t get a juicy lungful at such a high altitude. Rowan was too tired to get out of the car, but as he looked up out the window he lazily smiled, “Mom, this feels like I’m dreaming.” Magic. (Or altitude sickness.) Intoxicated by the view, we determined to drive off the beaten path and higher up Mount Washburn. Our van got about twenty feet up Chittenden Road before we bottomed out and noticed a nearby car waiting for a tow. We readjusted our enthusiasm to a more normal level and continued on the prescribed route.
- Boiling River. This is hands-down my favorite. The cold Gardiner River meets up with some feisty hot springs and you’ve got a spa in the wilderness. People have built little pools out of river rocks so there are about four or five hot tubs for soaking. The river is moving fast, but when I was there the folks who were sitting always held out their hands to help people walk back upriver. It’s as close to healing springs as you’re going to get outside of Lourdes. I’m not sure about the health benefits of mineral springs, or maybe it’s just camping, but I have never felt so clean. From the north entrance, drive about three miles south, past the sign that marks the 45th parallel, there’s a parking area on the east side of the road. If you cross the state line from Montana into Wyoming, you’ve gone too far. From there it’s about a half mile walk along the river. If you go in the morning, you’ll see steam clouds rising off the river. (Hot tip-if you camp in Mammoth Campground there is a shorter secret route straight from your tent. You’re welcome.)
- Mammoth Village-The historic park headquarters is here, just inside of the North Entrance. In the morning and evening, a herd of elk descend of the sweet lawns and they are absolutely everywhere. If you want to see casual elk, this is the place.
- Camping-I’m a huge fan of camping in national parks, especially Yellowstone, because it gets you closer to the action. (But if you have money AND you can plan a year ahead, just stay in the lodge.) For us, camping was magical. We set up at tent at 6000 feet surrounded by sweet smelling sagebrush, hustled the kids inside just before a lighting storm swept in. Caleb and I sat outside, holding a tightly bunted Leo, the kids sleeping in the tent, to enjoy a dinner of sliced cheese, crackers, and summer sausage. (I didn’t have a bottle of wine because I spent all my money on Caleb’s Indiana Jones hat). In the darkness, Leo leaned in close, and we watched the lighting over the mountains and dim glow of campfires. The storm took a powerful turn and suddenly threw big chunks of hail, sending us flying into the tent mixing baby, crackers, crackers and cheese all in one blanket. I just doesn’t get much better than that.